Agricultural Policy Review home

Iowa’s Role in US Agriculture

Lee Schulz and Chad Hart

While 2020 was a challenging year in many aspects, several features of Iowa agriculture remained consistent. Iowa continues to lead the nation in numerous agricultural production categories—corn and soybean production was robust despite the combined impacts of the drought and the derecho and meat production continued to build despite issues in processing capacity. The strength in Iowa’s agricultural production base is expected to extend through 2021.

Iowa’s crops

The 2020 calendar year seemed to have a crisis around every corner, from COVID outbreaks and panic runs on food and grocery items to the derecho that swept through Iowa and the drought, which still potentially looms over crop production this year. Through it all, Iowa’s agricultural producers brought forth a bountiful harvest. Corn production in Iowa once again led the nation at roughly 2.3 billion bushels, which represents 16% of the national corn crop. Soybean production totaled 494 million bushels, the second-highest in the nation behind Illinois.

The prospects for increased production hinge on weather concerns. The drought of 2020 has extended to become the drought of 2021. USDA’s current estimates utilize their weather-adjusted trendline yields. Given the acreage from the March Prospective Plantings report, USDA estimates national corn production at 14.99 billion bushels and national soybean production at 4.4 billion bushels. At those levels, the corn crop would be the largest on record and the soybean crop would be the third-largest. At this early stage in the growing season, USDA has not incorporated any impacts from the drought conditions.

Figure 1 shows the Iowa drought situation near the end of May. At the beginning of May, roughly 75% of the state was considered abnormally dry. Within the first week of May, the dry area expanded to almost 79% of the state. Since then, however, a combination of Gulf moisture and a series of weather fronts from the northwest have provided some needed rains for Iowa crops. While the rains have not significantly impacted the driest parts of the state, the abnormally dry areas are retreating. As of May, only 62% of Iowa was covered by some category on the drought monitor.

Figure 1
Figure 1. Iowa drought monitor, May 25, 2021.
Note: The Drought Monitor focuses on broad-scale conditions. Local conditions may vary. For more information on the drought monitor, go to droughtmonitor.unl.edu/about.aspx.

Given the March planting intentions, Iowa producers will be looking for better yields to replace a reduction in corn plantings. For 2021, Iowa producers are expected to plant 13.2 million acres of corn, down 400,000 acres from 2020. The drier conditions allowed producers to plant rapidly this spring and the recent rains have the corn crop off to a good start, with 19% of the crop rated as “Excellent” and 62% rated as “Good” at the beginning of June. If the state can achieve trendline yields, Iowa’s corn production would once again reach 2.4 billion bushels.

The land in Iowa that did not return to corn production went to soybean production. Iowa producers are expected to plant 9.8 million acres, up 400,000 acres from 2020. As with corn, planting pace was supported by the dry conditions and crop emergence has been helped by the recent precipitation. The early ratings for the crop show 16% of soybeans as “Excellent” and 60% are in “Good” condition. At trendline yields, Iowa would produce roughly 540 million bushels.

Iowa’s role in US meat production

Iowa has consistently had a prominent role in US meat production. In 2020, Iowa accounted for 16.1% of the nation’s commercial red meat production—roughly 9 billion pounds of meat, an increase of nearly 375 million pounds from 2019. The data is not complete enough to detail how much of Iowa’s red meat production is beef, veal, pork, or lamb and mutton. The statistics indicate where slaughter occurs, not necessarily where farm production happens. For example, a large share of Iowa cattle is slaughtered in either Nebraska or east of the Mississippi River. Over the past two years, Iowa has led the nation in commercial red meat production, taking back the title from Nebraska after a 23 year stretch. From the late 1970s to the mid-1990s, Iowa was consistently the nation’s top meat producing state.

Recently, USDA released the Meat Animals Production, Disposition and Income Annual Summary, which provides the annual balance sheet and income estimates for cattle and hogs by state and nationally and measures the total live weight of animals moving through the meat production system. US production of cattle and calves totaled 45.458 billion pounds in 2020, up 1.9% from 2019. Total 2020 production of cattle, calves, hogs, and pigs in Iowa totaled 15.126 billion pounds, down 8.9% from 2019. Iowa production rose 0.8% for cattle and calves, but dipped 10.3% for hogs and pigs. Cattle and calves accounted for 14.1% of the combined production of large meat animals (cattle and hogs) in Iowa, up from 12.7% in 2019.

Small packing plants grow

The United States added 13 federally inspected (FI) cattle slaughter plants in 2020, bringing the total to 683. This is the largest number of FI cattle slaughter plants since 2004. Of these, 446 plants slaughtered between 1 and 999 head of cattle during 2020, which is a decrease of 34 plants doing so from 2019. The remaining plants did not close, they scaled up production—45 more plants slaughtered between 1,000 and 9,999 head of cattle in 2020. However, while the number of smaller packing plants has grown, they still only represent 1.6% of the total FI cattle slaughter. The 13 largest plants, each slaughtering more than 1 million head per year, slaughtered 53.9% of all FI cattle. However, that is the smallest share of slaughter for the largest plants since 2005.

The number of FI cattle plants and the number of head slaughtered is not reported for Iowa to avoid disclosing data for individual operations. Iowa has 23 FI packing plants slaughtering cattle and calves, hogs, sheep and lambs, and goats or bison. Iowa has 93 other or non-FI livestock slaughter plants, which could be plants that sell meat and transport only intrastate, where state inspectors assure compliance with individual state standards, or they could be plants that do not sell meat but operate on a custom processing basis only. Iowa has 3% of the nation’s FI slaughter plants, and 5% of the other slaughter plants. However, these percentages may grow with the renewed interest in more localized meat production after the events of the past 18 months.

Suggested citation:

Schulz, L. and C. Hart. 2021. "Iowa’s Role in US Agriculture." Agricultural Policy Review, Spring 2021. Center for Agricultural and Rural Development, Iowa State University. Available at www.card.iastate.edu/ag_policy_review/article/?a=123.